The week gone-by was easily India’s moment both at home and abroad. Steered by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India took centre-stage and stole the show much to envy of most and chagrin of a handful. Pakistan and China probably squirmed at India’s diplomatic feat and its maneuvering both at the economic and the political level. It started with the World Economic Forum in Davos where Prime Minister Narendra Modi dominated. He is the first Indian Prime Minister to attend WEF meeting in 20 years: after Deve Gowda who saw it more as a junket than a forum to pitch India to world leaders and foreign investors.
Modi showcased India but did not come across as a salesman, selling wares. He spoke from a position of strength and told the world community what India is all about: “If you want wealth with wellness, work in India; if you want peace with prosperity, live in India; if you want health with whole life, be in India” he told the audience, pitching for Come to India, where growth is all inclusive and “democracy, demography and dynamism” are shaping development.
A first rate orator Modi has a way with words. For instance “we are removing red tape and laying out the red carpet” or “ from job seekers we will be job givers” and tweeting was done only by birds and Amazon referred to dense forests in 1997 are some of the Modisms that were at play at WEF. He received a standing ovation as he walked in at the opening session of WEF earlier this week.
Giant billboards of Modi had come up in Davos signifying the importance of the Indian Prime Minister’s presence at the mega event.
Modi spoke in chaste Hindi with snatches of Sanskrit to a rapt audience; quoted extensively from the scriptures and weaved in India’s glorious past with its promising future. He did not say India was desperate for money, green, yellow or purple; instead he delivered a strong message of what India as an investment destination had to offer.
He came across as strong and confident: and one who exudes the India-pride. Therefore when he narrated the India story, quoting from the oldest Upanishad, the Isha Upanishad, he demonstrated that neither India nor its people can be taken lightly. What came as a shot in the arm as Modi left home soil, was International Monetary Fund’s projections that put India’s growth at 7.4% in 2018 against China’s 6.8 percent.
Modi’s speech was not about economics and money alone. It was about other issues including climate change, anti globalization and terrorism stating that the “distinction between good terrorism and bad terrorism” a greater threat than terrorism itself.
Even while exploiting the world stage to India’s advantage Modi did not jump at the Davos invite. In fact, he gave the Forum a rough time for well over three years before the yes, I do moment. Modi was, reportedly, peeved at WEF denying him a platform when, as Gujarat Chief Minister, he wanted to be part of it. Not the one to take rejections in his stride, Modi played hard ball giving Forum leaders sleepless nights. Back-channels were activated thanks to WEF’s South Asia Head Viraj Mehta who did what it took to change the No to a Yes. Once Modi agreed, it was a win win situation for both.
Yet Modi chose his time; he also put country above self, as they say. On the first, he made it known that neither India nor its Prime Minister can be taken for granted. Therefore, even while agreeing to attend the Davos meet, he did it at his own pace. Also with India gearing up for elections next year, 2018 is crucial for Modi and therefore time was opportune to pitch India at WEF.
But more important is the fact that Modi set aside a personal affront for India’s interest. He did not let personal ego come in the way of nation’s good. He decided to go to Davos because it would help boost India’s economic prospects. He decided to use it at a tool to showcase a country that he leads. So even while WEF leaders are clapping with joy at the Modi catch, it is Modi and through him India that has, in a sense, scored.
Back home, Modi also scored big; it was a first but a much bigger one than his first in 2014 when he was sworn in Prime Minister.
Then, he had gone ahead and invited heads of SAARC countries for the grand ceremony held in the forecourt of Rashtrapati Bhavan. Now into his fourth year as Prime Minister he went for yet another first by inviting 10 leaders from ASEAN countries to be guests at India’s 69th Republic Day.
Dubbed as a diplomatic coup of its kind, Modi is also credited with getting US President Barrack Obama as the Republic Day Chief Guest in 2015.
Going by tradition, every Republic Day, India has a foreign dignitary, as its Chief Guest. Modi went ahead and added a zero to that one and got 10 guests of honour in the first ever initiative of its kind.
Leaders from the 10 nations — Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and Brunei – witnessed the spectacular parade enclosed in a 100 feet wide bullet-proof glass. This was preceded by a high profile Indian-ASEAN summit in New Delhi a day earlier to mark 25 years of this relationship.
Fanfare apart, more important is the underlying message that India has delivered by bringing together the heads of state of ASEAN countries. It has positioned itself as one who can and is willing to provide stability in the South China Sea. It is common knowledge that some of the ASEAN countries are locked in territorial dispute with China. Against this backdrop, the participation of ALL 10 leaders under the umbrella of the Summit and then at the Republic Day celebrations assumes political significance, signaling inclusive shared values and a common destiny, quite different from the fractured world that Modi spoke about in Davos. In other words, while forging new bonds with the West, Modi is aiming at an “upgrade” of a relationship and a focus shift from its policy of Look East to Act East.
As a gesture of goodwill, an India-ASEAN tableau was part of the parade as also the ASEAN flag along with individual flags of the 10 ASEAN nations: a tribute and India’s commitment to the relationship.
While all eyes were on India both at Davos and ASEAN presence on the Republic Day, the Congress Party acted spoiler. As Modi set foot in Davos Congress President Rahul Gandhi, took a jibe at Modi. He tweeted: “Dear PM, … tell Davos why 1% of India’s population gets 73% of its wealth?”
Back home, his lieutenants cried foul at Rahul Gandhi being denied front row seating at the Republic Day parade. Unlike his mother, Sonia Gandhi who was always seated in the front row, Rahul was pushed back to the sixth row. Congress leaders called it “deliberate humiliation” pushing politics to the fore: a far cry from Modi who put country first and basked under the India-moment.
The writer is a senior Indian journalist, political commentator and columnist of The Independent. She can be reached at: (firstname.lastname@example.org)